Anna Balmilero speaks at Edwards Biotech day

Anna Balmilero, the University of Kansas Edwards Campus transfer coordinator, speaks to students at the 2023 Biotech Day.

The University of Kansas Edwards Campus hosted hundreds of students from more than 15 schools for its annual Biotech Day on Friday, Jan. 27. The event is designed to give students a glimpse into the degrees and professional opportunities offered at the Overland Park campus.

Faculty and students shared information about the unique opportunities offered by the satellite campus, focusing on two-year biotechnology and applied biology degree programs open to individuals with associate degrees or equal credits. Dr. Jack Treml, the assistant director of the Edwards biotechnology program, said he hopes that Biotech Day helps to excite and inform students about career paths that have not been considered previously.

“I think a lot of people go into biology and think ‘healthcare,’ and that’s been an ancillary part of the way I look at biology. I look at it as indirect healthcare. We learn to make the tools that are then used in a healthcare environment,” Treml said. “I’m really hoping to get students excited about those kinds of career paths and, as I was saying before, to make them aware of our program.”

Juliann Solomon, a senior from Olathe, is currently enrolled in the biotechnology program. Solomon said they have benefitted from the small-campus environment and inherent emphasis on individual learning that the Edwards campus provides.

“I’ve loved this program. I’ve always been a very hands-on learner,” Solomon said. “This program’s very hands-on, so I’ve found it easy to thrive [here].”

Seniors in the biotechnology program presented their capstone research projects, and students could then sign up to volunteer in the research labs that interested them most. One of the presenters, Ana Hernandez, a senior from Lenexa, said that a goal of the presentations was to pique students' interest in research experiences.

“We want more students to come into the program and be more involved in laboratory work,” Hernandez said. “[For] any student that is interested in science, I think this is, like, a great place to come in and learn all about laboratory work, concepts. It’s really a great place to just apply all of your knowledge.”

This year’s event focused on the intersections of biotechnology with the intelligence community. Students were able to hear from Dr. Michael Patterson, a program manager for the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, a federal agency that researches science and technology as the topics pertain to national security. Dr. Patterson has a broad history in multiple areas of biology, including virology and bioinformatics. His lecture introduced students to multiple internships and programs within the biosecurity realm and was followed by a question-and-answer session.

Students submitted answers to a scientific puzzle ahead of the event, and winners were announced at the end of the day. Edwards faculty graded submissions on both clarity and accuracy, having tasked contestants with decoding strings of genetic information. Ben Parrack, a Blue Valley High School senior, took first place, receiving a $300 scholarship.

“There was a pretty substantial packet full of background information on the history of biology concerning DNA sequencing and some of the bioethics surrounding it,” Parrack said. “The goal of the competition was to, as quickly as possible, identify in the sequence of DNA that was provided different proteins or amino acid sequences that we could use to develop a vaccine based on the description of the disease that was given to us.”

Anjali Hocker Sing, a junior from Olathe North, came in second and received a $200 scholarship.

This year’s Biotech Day marked its first return to in-person participation since the pandemic. Treml reflected on the development that has led to the current iteration of the event and its impact on the community.

“We started about five or six years ago. Initially, it was just bringing kids in and, when we first did it, we just showed a movie, and we had a panel discussion after the movie about biology,” Treml said. “From that beginning, we’ve really professionalized the way we run it … [we’ve] built this into a full day, and we built in that idea of getting high schoolers involved in the research that happens here.”